Upon entering the White House in January 1981, Ronald Reagan used to joke he was already accustomed to “living above the store” – a wry reference to his birth on Feb. 6, 1911, inside a second-floor apartment in a Tampico, Ill., building that housed a bakery.
It’s been 110 years since Nelle and Jack Reagan welcomed “Dutch” into the world, and 17 years since his death of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004. But the ensuing years have been friendly to the 40th president’s historic legacy, his status and stature rising with each presidential administration.
That’s because great leaders often make difficult situations look easy, and Ronald Reagan was certainly no exception. He inherited concurrent crises – a wobbly economy, a dejected country in “malaise” and a crumbling military still entangled in a cold war that seemed without end.
By the end of his eight years in office, America was roaring. He did it all with a smile, was graceful under fire and a gentleman in a profession that seems to reward rude aggression.
Ronald Wilson Reagan is deserving of a national holiday, but short of that, let’s consider just 10 lessons we can learn from his long and successful American life:
1. He showed us that big things can come from small beginnings. Raised in poverty and the son of an alcoholic father, Reagan forgot about finding excuses and found a way to pursue his dreams. When he lost out on a job in a department store, he headed west to Hollywood, where he would find his way and his future.
2. He believed in America and encouraged everyone to do the same. Ronald Reagan believed in American exceptionalism. Accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit in 1980, the former California governor declared, “I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom.”
3. He was willing to take smart risks. How do you go from poverty to president? By sticking your neck out and standing up for what you believe. “Let it never be said of this generation of Americans that we become so obsessed with failure that we refused to take risks that could further the cause of peace and freedom in the world,” the president once advised.
He demonstrated that compromise is often necessary in order to get things done. Principled on the imperative things, Reagan saw the bigger picture.
4. He demonstrated that compromise is often necessary in order to get things done. Principled on the imperative things, Reagan saw the bigger picture. Meeting with a group of broadcasters in 1983, he noted, “I have always figured that half a loaf is better than none, and I know that in the democratic process you’re not going to always get everything you want.”
5. He championed free-market capitalism and warned against socialism and communism. Long before he ran for public office, Reagan regularly railed against income redistribution. “The principles of wealth-creation transcend time, people and place. Governments which deliberately subvert them by denouncing God, smothering faith, destroying freedom and confiscating wealth have impoverished their people,” he said. “Communism works only in heaven, where they don’t need it, and in hell, where they’ve already got it.”
6. He liked to have fun and exercise. A fan of outdoor recreation, the Reagans visited Camp David 186 times while he was president and regularly escaped to their ranch in California. He’d clear brush, chop wood and ride the trails of the Santa Ynez Mountain Range. “There is nothing as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse,” he liked to quip.
7. He trusted in God’s sovereignty. A man of deep faith, Reagan wasn’t afraid to die. “I’ve always believed that we were, each of us, put here for a reason, that there is a plan, somehow a divine plan for all of us,” he told the National Prayer Breakfast, 11 months after being shot. “I know that whatever days are left to me belong to Him.”
8. He modeled how to age gracefully. At the time, Reagan was the oldest person to hold the presidency, but had fun joking about it. He also noted its advantages. “Age has its privileges, not least among them the opportunity to distill whatever wisdom comes from a long life of experiences,” he noted in June 1994.
9. He put first things first. In what would become his final address before the Republican National Convention, the former president stated, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.”
10. He reminded us the best is yet to come. In his letter to the American people on Nov. 5, 1994, in which he announced his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, Reagan wrote, “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
I met Ronald Reagan in December 1997, a lifelong dream come true. He couldn’t have been nicer to me. And like so many other Americans, I choked up watching his funeral seven years later. I miss him today, but would like to think the Reagan principles live on, as we strive to be citizens of the “shining city on a hill” he so eloquently called us to.